Generous GLAM

29 January 2018

Last week I attended Linux Conference Australia 2018 (LCA2018). This may seem a little odd (I like open source but I'm not a five-days-of-conference Linux guy) - I was actually there for the one-day Access and Memory: Open GLAM and Open Source mini conference. I didn't expect there would be more 'Linux' people than 'GLAM' people: in hindsight of course there were but it highlights why GLAM professionals should organise and attend these sorts of conferences: it was interesting to hear some perspectives from tech people but it also allowed us to talk to tech people in our own language about tech and open source in GLAM.

Whilst the mini-conf was a little smaller than I was hoping (it was the first year it's run, and we were competing with 'Art and Tech'), I'm really glad I went. The talk that gained the most attention was Bonnie Wildie's amazing talk about #redactionart. Bonnie highlighted that at every stage of his exploration of redaction art, Tim Sherratt has encouraged people to 'download, use, share', using transparent processes and, as he puts it, sharing research-in-progress. Bonnie asked two key questions in relation to the story of #redactionart:

  1. why aren't GLAM institutions the ones actively creating hashtags and promoting how citizens re-use their collections?
  2. why don't GLAM institutions 'open source' the 'background' info and research that goes into creating exhibitions?

Donna Benjamin also engaged us in a conversation about digitisation and increasing access to our cultural heritage. Donna asked

  1. How can libraries, archives and communities work together to increase access to our cultural heritage? 2. What can and should we do with this knowledge once it's freely available?

Donna's questions came in the context of digitisation projects, but in many ways I think Bonnie's questions go some way towards answering them. Those of us who work in GLAM institutions were keen to point out that the creation of reliable and useful metadata is a crucial part of the digitisation process - I see this is a big part of providing 'access' to cultural heritage. So it's not enough to provide access to more digitised files, or run more exhibitions: if we want to increase access, it needs to come with metadata, and the right to remix.

What we're talking about is something particular. Initially I though maybe something like 'co-creation', or 'sharing', or 'collaboration'. But all of these terms centre the institution as much as the citizen-creator. What we need is as term that describes the act of institutions making it easy to interact with the artefacts they hold, in a way that is, to the extent possible, unmediated by the institution. Bonnie mentioned 'generous interfaces' - a concept I first became aware of through Mitchell Whitelaw's work. Riffing off this, what we discussed at LCA2018 might be termed 'Generous GLAM'.

Download, use, share

Would you try to preserve a language by simply creating a dictionary? Dictionaries are useful, and help us to understand the history of our languages and how they have evolved, but the best way to keep a language active and alive is to have lots of people using it every day, coining new terms, phrases, puns and sentence structures organically. Why should it be different for other parts of culture? If we're going to 'preserve culture' we need to accept that part of that remit involves facilitating the growth and evolution of our culture, and the use, remixing and perhaps even 'abuse' of aspects of that culture including artefacts, images and stories preserved in our public institutions.

Some GLAM institutions are doing good work in this space already. GIF it up is a collaboration between DigitalNZ, DPLA, Europeana, and Trove aimed at engaging people with digitised images and therefore, presumably, the wider collections held by these institutions. The Rijksmuseum makes metadata available through their very accessible API, including (crucially) information about re-use and download rights. And ACMI open-sourced their audio tour software so that other institutions could benefit.

The guts of our conversation at LCA2018 was, for me, that GLAM Institutions need to do more to open up collections and metadata - and to consider our 'background' data creation as something that should also be opened up. Bonnie asked about the information created when large institutions create exhibitions: huge amounts of research go into those short museum labels, far more than is actually included. But being a public librarian, this also made me think later about the 'background' work that public libraries do. Every public library I've ever heard of runs storytime sessions, often including craft activities, yet we don't share information about our 'kits' (lists of books read plus the accompanying activity: usually a colour-in or simple paper craft idea related to the stories). What might 'generous GLAM' look like in the context of children's story time? A searchable database of story time kits? A website that suggests themes based on the time of year and your location? Perhaps something that queries Trove to create storytime collections based on what is available at your local library right now?

The other thing I jotted down on my plane ride home was that GLAM organisations really should have a discussion about standardised APIs. Having an API is the new hotness in GLAM. Generally it's a good thing, though I do wonder whether, in the case of software vendors, this has come about because of the lack of proper modern standards around metadata storage and communication. In any case, given that our use-cases are very similar, it makes sense to me that international GLAM institutions of all sizes should be talking to each other about standardising APIs. Imagine how helpful it would be if you could query Trove, Europeana, the Louvre and your local public library collection all using the same API structure, simply changing the root URL in each case. It's not just the data itself that we should be generous with.

What is preserving culture anyway?

It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it. Unnamed US commander, Bến Tre, 7 Feb 1968

We often say that GLAM institutions exist to preserve culture: but what does that mean? Internationally, museums have often been criticised for holding artefacts that were stolen, taken in war, or deceitfully traded. Should the Parthenon Marbles be preserved in their current location - the British Museum - to tell the story of Britain as a part of 'Western Civilisation', or should they be repatriated to Athens where they can be preserved as a part of Greek culture? When artefacts like the Wedge Collection ($) are displayed in the UK, is that preserving 'our' human culture? Or does holding these items in museums prevent Indigenous communities in current-day Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales from maintaining their cultural practices? What exactly do we mean by 'preserve'? Does opening access always make it easier to preserve culture? Who gets to decide, and whose culture is it anyway? These questions aren't always easy to answer..

The limits to Generous GLAM

Tim accidentally found #redactionart because he was looking for redactions - what our government is actively hiding from us. The Redaction Art project is a détournment - as such, it's not something that an institution could do itself. One of Bonnie's questions was (paraphrased) why aren't GLAM institutions the ones actively creating hashtags and promoting how citizens re-use their collections? This is also something that Tim has tweeted about in the past. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I believe that 'Generous GLAM' is something our National and State institutions should practice, and in many ways they are best placed to do so: whilst they certainly aren't showered with funding, they are still much better resourced than local institutions. On the other hand, it's easy to see how a more engaged institution could rapidly find itself in trouble. Whilst the War Memorial so far remains unscathed from pointing out in 2013 that Australia Day hasn't always been on 26 January, I can already imagine the shade of beet red on the faces of Australia's favourite 'commentators' if the National Library retweeted a project that linked ANZAC Day remembrance to Australia's refugee gulags, or shared a Facebook post about mapping massacres of Indigenous people, or even 'liked' #thanksfortyping.

Is it still subversive if the National Archives promotes it?

Next steps

Participants at LCA2018 OpenGlam expressed a desire to keep discussing these topics. The above is mostly what I jotted down on the plane ride home: more questions than answers. I'd love to read what other people think about this, and some of your own ideas. Make sure you tag them #generousGLAM ;-)